The World As Is

 

At the end of this story, you will find two things:
The first will be someone pleading for help.
The second will be of someone having uncontrollable gas.
The order is not so important. Not yet at least. For now, let’s roll back the clock to the beginning scene:
Of me, impressionable Irfan, aged 16, somehow avoiding the devastation that is known as acne, but still trying to grow that awful moustache or whatever you want to call that dead caterpillar fuzz that was festering right above the upper lip.
It’s November in the early 2000s (post 9/11) and I was sitting in class at my school in Queens, and as the teacher did her best to show us the reason for why sine and cosine even exist (which was admittedly something I never thought about), all I really felt like doing was smiling and grinning and making faces with Fareena, who sat right across from me.
Fareena and I met at our parent’s mosque, where I eventually got the courage to ask her if she wanted to hang out. She told me to ask her again when I had a definite idea of where to go, what to do, and how much it would cost, and so, after a week of thinking, I told her we could meet at the movie theater, and a month after that, I had my first kiss, and a year later, I was making faces with her in the middle of class, and she was smiling back, and the world as I knew it was perfect.

. . .

Every day, we would find time to hang out after school, and at least once or twice a month we would go and watch a movie, something that we could laugh at together.
“Oh my god, Bruce Willis looks a giant penis!” she squealed, as others simply turned in their seats and stared at us.
I laughed, and as we left the movie theater, I stuck out my tongue at whoever was still glaring.
We bought hot chocolate at our favorite deli and explored the neighborhood, while also of course making fart noises for people walking ahead of us. It was the Bloomberg years I think. Honestly, I don’t really keep track of which white guy happens to be in power when, but it definitely was a unique time to be growing up in the city, especially in the outer boroughs, when it felt like every day there was another building being left abandoned and another liquor store opening up right across the street from it.
“Did you read this yet?” Fareena asked as we were at the library, in the back corner, rifling through a mix of graphic novels and books that we wouldn’t find on our summer reading lists.
“What is it?” I asked, as I just finished reading some pages of an encyclopedia on nature, which included the infamous Dodo bird. The pictures of it looked funny to me.
Fareena passed me the novel she was talking about, which was titled Giovanni’s Room. “Woah, check this guy out,” she said, holding up another book, this one with the title The Savage Detectives emblazoned across. “Honestly, it’s a little confusing,” she said, but looked down at the page, smiling wide. “But I like how the characters are all writers and poets and trying to find adventure.”
I didn’t say anything right then. But after a few moments, when it became too quiet, I showed her the picture of the bird. She read the paragraph and shook her head and kept smiling.

. . .

Rajeev asked me where Fareena was.

I shrugged and made sure not make any eye contact. Another school day had ended, and we were all in the main lot, either ready to go home or like Rajeev and his group of followers, to head toward the main avenue again, probably find people they could tease and easily tear apart. Fareena had run off to the principal’s office seconds before the bell rang, and so I waited and waited, and ignored Rajeev, who was the top student in school, but also knew way too much about how to jumpstart a car without the key. Rajeev said that he learned that trick from his father, but wherever it came from, I didn’t want to know.

“See you later buddy,” he said, as him and his group finally left. “Don’t forget to wear your tampon.”
I rolled my eyes. Soon after, Fareena stepped outside, with her eyebrows narrowed. I asked her what was wrong.
“Nothing really,” she said. “I asked the principal if I could take some of my tests early.”
“What? Why?”
“My family needs me at our restaurant more often now,” she explained. “Plus, I do need to save money for college.”
I didn’t say anything as we kept walking down the sloped streets. We watched a movie and laughed. We went to the deli afterwards, but Fareena told me she needed to go home and start studying. We kissed, and I finished my hot chocolate, and decided to go back too.

. . .

At first, not much was different. We would still hang out. We would still find ways to be ourselves and have fun. But one afternoon, she again met with the principal. I waited like before as Rajeev discussed plans with his group. He again looked over at me and smirked, but I would look away as casually as I could.
Fareena rushed back outside minutes later. I asked her what happened, and tried to keep up.
“I just needed to take more tests again,” she said.
“Wait, where are you going?” I asked.
“I have to go home,” she told me. “I have a shift later tonight.”
“But what about the movies?”
“Babe, I can’t…”
“But – – -”
Before I could finish, she turned to me and smiled and said, “Why don’t you study with me?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “What?” I said. “Why?”
“Why not? It’s good.”
“But I’m already doing well,” I said. “What’s the reason for doing more? I don’t even like math.”
“That’s not the point though,” she said. “Don’t you want to go to college?”
“Yea, but that’s later,” I said. “You can’t be so serious about this.”
She sighed. “I have to go,” she said.
“Wait, you do realize this is way too much right now,” I told her.
She shook her head and continued walking.
I should’ve said something, but I didn’t.

. . .

I would still talk with Fareena at school and we would continue to eat our lunch together and walk to class side-by-side, but she was always too tired to do much afterwards. I would sometimes try to spark an actual conversation with her but I would quickly give up, and go to the main avenue by myself.
It was a few weeks before winter break when I decided to watch a movie without her. It was another Bruce Willis film and he still looked like a giant penis. But I watched the entire movie, understood the plot, memorized some lines, and once it was over, I made up my mind to just go back home. But as I exited the theater, I heard a voice.
“Hey man, found any tampons in there?” it said to me.
I sighed. Rajeev was by himself next to a payphone. He asked me where Fareena was.
I again ignored him and kept walking, but he followed. “Yo, guess what?” he said. “I have the answers to next week’s test.”
I didn’t reply. He chuckled. “Come on, man, I’m just trying to help a Desi out,” he said. “Don’t you want your girl to have it easy?”
I stopped. I turned to him, and looked him in the eye.

Rajeev was in his final year at high-school, and all of the school’s main officials, from the principal to his assistant’s assistant, would praise Rajeev and offer him chance after chance to speak before the entire student body. He was great at math. He was great at science. He even knew how to dunk. I once played soccer with him but never kept much in touch, never really knew where he lived or what he did once our games were over. When I entered his apartment, it was for the first time, and it was completely quiet, except for the muffled sounds of traffic that would seep in from the window. I asked him where his parents were. He said simply that his mom was working and his dad was out-of-town.
Rajeev took me to his room, where he sat down at his desk and immediately began rummaging through the drawers.
I, on the other hand, stood in one place and looked around, at the walls, at the floor even, at the stack of CDs he had. At first glance, it was like any other room, with posters of movie heroes and sports stars, of empty CD casings left on the carpet. But I soon realized that he not only had movie posters, but actual DVDs, and even a TV. Plus, his stack of CDs was probably the highest I’d ever seen.
“Here you go,” he said, and handed me a sheet of paper. I read it over, and recognized that the answers were different than what I expected.
“Wait a minute,” I said. ‘This is for the wrong test.”
He shrugged. “Dude, whatever, just take them. I don’t need them anymore,” he said, as he continued to look through his drawer.
I clenched my right fist, but I couldn’t stop myself from looking back at the movie posters and at the TV. I didn’t say anything for a while, as I tried to read the titles of each and every DVD.
“It’s from a business venture,” Rajeev said. He explained, with his hands still in the drawer, that he sold alcohol and cigarettes to students. “It costs a lot more for someone to get a fake I.D.” he said. “So I just hire some older guys, desperate ones especially, to buy the items for me.” He paused. “I’m always looking for friends to help out,” he said.
I looked at him.
He was smiling.
I glared, and I left. Fareena called me later that night, so we could work on our extra credit assignments over the phone. I was glad to hear her voice again, although as we went through answer after answer, I would also look through my bedroom window, at our backyard filled with weeds and the one next door and the one after that, as we went through answer, after answer, after answer.

. . .

“Gary Oldman is a walrus trying to be a man!”
I nervously chuckled.
“Gary Oldman looks like a fucking faggot!”
I held my breath, as the rest of the theater shifted in their seats and started murmuring to each other.
But that didn’t matter to Rajeev, who kept yelling at the screen, till we were asked to leave.
“That movie didn’t make any sense,” he said, as I led him to the corner deli where we bought hot chocolate, and sat and drank by the window since he didn’t want to go back outside just yet.
I sipped and sipped as neither of us said a word. I eventually decided to ask about his parents again.
“Mom works and works and works, not much else to say about her,” he said.
“And your dad?” I asked.
“Like I said, he’s out-of-town,” Rajeev answered, and took a sip from his own cup, as he looked out the window.
I wanted to go to the library afterwards although I probably should’ve guessed that wouldn’t be an option.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be quick,” he said, as he waited by the payphone at the corner.
When it rang, he picked up and whispered.
I stood a few steps away from him. I should leave, I thought. I was worried what Rajeev would do if I did however. Before I could make up my mind, he placed the phone back into the booth and smiled at me.
My stomach gurgled.

. . .

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “Nothing will happen.”
I didn’t say a word as he walked block after block, past the abandoned buildings and finally ending up at a street where there were no Stop signs or functioning traffic lights. At an empty staircase of a building were two large paper bags.
Rajeev looked through them, and I glanced, and noticed that there were bottles of beer and alcohol inside.
“No…” I said, and immediately turned around.
But Rajeev was quick to tell me that if I left, he would just tell the school it was all mine.
“Let’s be real here,” he said. “We might have had the same classes. But who has the brighter future. Who would the school want to protect?”
My stomach continued to gurgle and churn, as I took a deep breath and picked up one of the bags.
“I’ll give you 10 percent man,” he said.
“I don’t want it…” I murmured.
He laughed. “You’re crazy,” he said, as we retraced our steps and headed back to his block.
I dropped the bags off at the apartment, and left. Rajeev tried calling my name, but I just walked down the stairs as fast as I could without falling. It was cold that evening, but I walked all the way back home without my hood on, without my gloves. I didn’t even notice that my hands were turning red until I had to quickly crouch down and tie my shoelaces.

. . .

I tried to forget. I would call Fareena and try to find time to hang out. I would also go to the library and read snippets from books that Fareena had recommended, including parts of Giovanni’s Room.
Rajeev called me again, however, while I was supposed to be studying for a final exam but instead was staring through the window.
Our phone was in the kitchen but my mom was working an extra shift and so were my aunts and cousins.
“Hey man, I have a new job,” he said after I picked up. “Quick like last time. But I’ll even give you a free bottle if you’d like.”
“No,” I said.
He laughed, but after I didn’t respond, he stopped. “Are you serious?” he said. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” I told him, and hung up, and went back to my room.
For days, I ignored phone calls at night, when no one else was home. Fareena and I would hang out when she could. Once, we skipped a movie and went straight to the deli. She couldn’t keep her eyelids open though.
“How can you do well on a test if you don’t get some sleep?” I told her.
She shrugged and yawned.
I rolled my eyes and finished my hot chocolate.

. . .

I was lying in bed, with my eyes closed, when the phone rang. I grumbled, rolled over to my side, but a few minutes later, the phone rang again. I still didn’t move, but every half-hour, it would ring, until finally, I rushed over, and snatched it up.
“Dude, I’m not hanging out with you anymore,” I yelled.
No one answered.
“I’m hanging up,” I said. “Don’t bother me again.”
Suddenly, a voice responded. It was a man’s voice. It wasn’t Rajeev’s.
“Who do you think you are?” the man said, and judging from his voice, I could tell he was older than me. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” he kept repeating.
“Who-who is this?” I managed to ask.
“You think you can fuck me over like that?” he said. “You think you can fuck me over like that and get away with it.”
I hung up and stared at the phone as if somehow it would explode. My shirt stuck to my skin, and even though I went back to my room, I sat up in bed, shivering.

. . .

The calls and threats continued, but I didn’t tell anyone, not even Fareena. I thought they would stop but then, the man started leaving me voicemails, telling me he would find me. I would delete the messages seconds after he would leave them behind.
“This sandwich tastes weird,” Fareena said, as we sat at the cafeteria.
I nodded, as I took tiny bites and looked out the window.
“Mr. Dyer said we can only use a certain amount of extra credit points for our next test,” she said, and again I nodded.
It was cloudy that day, and everyone was more subdued, even though it was a Friday afternoon and freedom was ticking closer and closer.
I was looking out the window and chewing slowly, not really thinking of much or trying not to. But just as I took another bite of whatever sandwich the school had given us, I saw a figure in the school lot. I squinted. It was a tall man standing right outside the gate.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Fareena said. “I mean, we worked hard for those points. If we have hundred points, shouldn’t we be able to use all of them at one time? The semester is almost over anyway.”
I stopped chewing.
There was a pause.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I snapped back to reality. I looked at her and told her “Nothing” and kept eating the sandwich, even though I wasn’t hungry but honestly, was just trying to keep myself preoccupied.
Fareena left school early, and Rajeev was nowhere in sight. As I walked home by myself, I would keep looking over my shoulder. At one point, I felt as if someone was following me. I decided to not walk home but to head straight to the theater instead, which I did, and still, I felt as if someone was right behind me. I glanced at the rearview mirrors of the parked cars, and again, saw the same tall man I had seen earlier, just a few yards away. I increased my pace but knew that wouldn’t work, so I headed for the shopping mall at the end of the block, and walked behind the crowd. I walked around and around the mall for an hour, as I pretended to look at the new video games on display, at whatever I could focus on. There were also kids I recognized from school, and so I walked in the opposite direction and finally went back outside.
“If you scream, I’m going to rip your fucking head off.” The voice echoed in my head, as hands grabbed me by the collar, and all I could do was look up at the man’s face, with his bangs and his furrowed brow.
He took me to the empty streets about a mile away, where the abandoned buildings looked like they would crumble at any moment.
He grabbed my collar and lifted me off the ground. My legs flailed as he pulled me close and glared.
“Where’s the money?” he said, his breath reeking of smoke.
“I-I-dunno,” I stammered.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” he said.
I was barely able to breathe and all I could manage to say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” over and over again, as a rotten stench began to engulf us.
He covered his nose, and I dropped. I coughed and I coughed as I quickly tried to recover.
He looked at me, with his eyebrow raised, as I looked back at him, with my own face full of confusion.
He kept his hand over his nose, but I could tell tears were welling up in his eyes.
“Are you okay…?” I asked him.
“I needed that money,” he said. “My dad…my dad is going to throw me out…I needed that money…”
The tears ran down his cheeks.
I asked him who he was looking for. He told me he was looking for Rajeev.
“I keep buying him the alcohol and he pays me sometimes, but these past few weeks, man, I really need the money,” he said. “Rajeev told me you were the new guy. I didn’t know how that was possible since you looked so young, but what could I do? I just got thrown out of college, you know. I don’t know what to do.”
I did feel sorry for him. I really did. But as I watched him try and wipe the tears from his eyes, an idea had crept inside my head.
“I can help you” I told him.
He dabbed his eyes with his sleeve and looked at me.
“Here,” I handed him the answer sheet that I kept in my backpack. I told him to go to the school, tell them he was related to one of the students, and that his cousin or whomever got the sheet from Rajeev.
The man held it in his hands, and was smiling and beaming with joy. He thanked me over and over again. I told him no problem, and smiled too.

. . .

The winter holidays had arrived, and lights were strung up all over the neighborhood, even peeking through apartment windows.
I hadn’t seen Rajeev in weeks, and I didn’t know it then, but I would never see him again. His mother did come to school once. I saw her in the hallway talking with the principal. She was crying and pleading with him.
On the last day of school before winter break, I decided to surprise Fareena at her family’s restaurant. Before I left however, the phone rang, and I picked it up without thinking of who it might be.
It turned out to be the man who once worked for Rajeev.
“I still didn’t get my money…” he said. “You could’ve told me where he lived. Why didn’t you tell me where he lives?”
I waited till he stopped crying and I told him to get some rest and I hung up.
It was getting late and I wanted to see Fareena, with the sun still up. When I reached her at the restaurant, she was outside drinking some coffee.
“What are you doing here?” she said, smiling.
I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and asked her if she ate anything yet. She replied no, and so, we went to the theater, and I bought a huge bucket of popcorn. We sat down in our usual seats, all the way in the back.
During the trailers, she told me she also had some time to hang out tomorrow. “I need to study and be ready for next semester but I do think I need a break once in a while,” she said.
I smiled. ‘Well, we can study at the library if you want,” I replied.
She laughed, and rested her head on my shoulder.
I put my hand in hers.
The movie started.

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